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The (in) Complete Smiley

What’s this a review?  Sorry for the silence, alas work is too busy and I took on a couple of pet projects which took up my little spare time. That said… I still listened to plenty of plays and documentaries – so where to start? Smiley of course.

Well we are 5 programmes in to R4’s re rendering of John le Carré’s George Smiley, a mammoth task and one fraught with dangers.  Hanging over George Smiley is the shadow of Alec Guiness.  Anyone who saw the TV version of Tinker, Tailor and Smiley’s People see Guiness when they read the words George Smiley, including le Carré! And not just Guiness, look at the cast, Ian Richardson, Bernard Hepton, Michael Jayston, Hywel Bennett…

Enter stage left, Simon Russell Beale, will he step into ewan McGregor’s shoes and do a crappy impersonation of Obi wan for us?  Read on gentle listener.

I approached Call for the Dead with as much of an open mind as I could,  and I have to admit for the first 5 minutes this soft, inward performance didn’t seem quite right, then suddenly – it had changed, I suddenly realised this was Smiley.  A troubled, complex, man. In love, loved and loveless – his job treating him the way life does, all pitch perfect from Beale.

Now before I laud too much praise on Beale’s performance (can there be too much?) I have to just say the cast (Kenneth Cranham, Eleanor Bron, Geoffrey Palmer, Ian McDiarmid, Phillip Jackson, Maggie Steed, Ewan Bailey I could go on for ever…) adaptation and direction all reach the same heights. The plays move along well keeping plenty of detail and incedent, whilst never seeming stagey. i can give no better example than in an expository scene in A Murder of Quality between Smiley and Ailsa which literally took my breath away.  The subtlety of all concerned in presenting a scene which makes one wonder if you are eavesdropping on a conversation is incredible. After that I was eagerly awaiting the first of the Karla trilogy.

Tinker Tailor is as good as it gets I think.  Shaun McKenna deserves something in the order of a Knighthood for his masterly revision of this book.  Ewan Bailey is brilliant as Guillam, and here you will see a subtle shift away from the TV series. Young Peter Guillam is very much his own man, and whilst loyal to Smiley, still unhappy with his own mole like status in the Circus. Toby is also slightly revised more pointedly explaining his own complex role.

Strangely the most similar scenes to the TV are those of Ricky Tarr, truncated but no real change of emphasis, but then they are the scene setter, the Macguffin, there is no emotional burden laying heavily on Tarr, just simple betrayal, loss and fear.

When it comes to Ann, the TV series made he a distant object from Smiley, and was always the weaker part of the TV series. Mckenna exposes Smiley through his constant internal discourse he has with Ann (as opposed to the reality of their non communication, in once case cleverly broken by a bad line).  This exposure of Smiley’s inner thoughts,  means Ann’s infidelities (which are exposed as we hunt Gerald) seem pin sharp painful as you hear the tenor of Beales voice change.

Is it perfect, well I can’t think of anything to criticise.  Everything seems so real, so normal, you just don’t question it.  Only in A Murder of Quality, when the twist relates to the misrepresentation of someone’s personality does it jar a little, but that is a fault of the novel and it is only apparent in this version due to the normality of everything else.

So if you like le Carre, should you listen?  Well I am sure you are, but if you like radio at all – dive on in there, and look forward to some more great adaptations in 2010.

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